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Homecoming for Oz's Munchkins : A three-day reunion of the film's little people sparks remembrances.

October 30, 1997|CLIFFORD ROTHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Fifty-nine years ago, 124 midgets arrived by bus, plane and car from all over North America to the Culver Hotel in Culver City. It was only a few short blocks from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where "The Wizard of Oz" was going into production. They had been cast as little people called Munchkins.

Many had never seen another midget before, let alone been away from home. All but one had never been in a movie. What none of them knew was that they were stepping into history, a classic movie and becoming legends themselves as Munchkins.

Every American over age 3 inevitably knows the Munchkins. Just the word "Munchkin" brings a smile, resonates childhood dreams, and summons up Oz and the Yellow Brick Road.

A little bit of history happens tonight, as the seven surviving Munchkins who are able to travel (14 are still alive) reunite for the first time where it all began, at the Culver Hotel. The three-day gathering, to which the public is invited, will celebrate the Munchkins; their reunion at the Culver Hotel, which housed many of them; and Halloween, which has become a massive national celebration for everything "The Wizard of Oz" believes in: fantasy, play, dress-up, scares and sweetness.

Like Halloween (a costume party will be part of the festivities) and the movie, there is a yin-yang of darkness and light to a first local reunion of a group whose members are quickly dwindling. And amid the celebration, the need by all concerned to correct a long-standing rumor of debauchery, drugs and ransacked rooms at the Culver Hotel. And the oft-quoted lore of drunk midgets swinging from the rafters.

"The rumors started years ago, that they just trashed the hotel and were swinging from the chandeliers. There were some parties, but nothing like Hollywood legend. I interviewed more than 30 of them, and they said that there wasn't time for partying when they were making 'The Wizard of Oz,' " says Munchkin specialist Stephen Cox, author of "The Munchkins of Oz."

Ironically, it was Garland, says Cox, who fueled the legend in the early '60s, not long after "The Wizard of Oz" had begun to appear annually on CBS. "She was one of the chief people who spread the rumor when she appeared drunk one night on the Jack Paar show. She said as a general statement that all those midgets were drunk," Cox says. "She was on the show herself battling alcoholism and drug dependency, and slurring the words as she said it. The little people took umbrage at that."

But former Munchkins ultimately recognize Garland as a kindred spirit, who went out of her way to be friendly to the midgets--many terrified of being on a sound stage for the first time--while herself being exploited by the studio. "Judy was a terrific gal. A typical teenager. On the set in the morning, she'd always say to us, 'Hi, gang' or 'Hi, kids, how are you?' " remembers Jerry Maren, 77, the infamous Lollipop Kid. "And when she left, she always said, 'See ya in the morning. And get some rest. It'll be a long day.' "

Garland's days during the "Oz" shoot lasted upward of 15 hours, says Mickey Carroll, another former Munchkin who stayed with Garland while the film was shooting. "We'd come home at 10 or 11 p.m. after a 14-hour day, but she wouldn't come home until 2 in the morning. They had her rehearsing off the stage, rehearsing another movie, rehearsing songs. She was only supposed to work two hours, but they got around that. Just as long as she wasn't on the set, she didn't violate the rules. So she was apparently already on drugs when 'Oz' was shooting."

But this event is clearly a festival, focusing on the bright side. Tonight, the Munchkins will gather in the lobby of the Culver Hotel, where they will meet fans and sign photos (available for $5, Maren says). There will also be a display of "Oz" memorabilia, mostly centered around the Munchkins: three Munchkin costume pieces, including the coroner's hat, a Munchkin vest and a spear from the witch's guards. The entrance fee that night is $10, $5 for kids.

Friday night, Halloween, will feature a costume party with the Munchkins. The catered affair costs $25 and features a cash bar. "Costumes are suggested but not required," says Elaine Willingham, the St. Louis-based organizer of the event and president of Beyond the Rainbow, a mail-order company specializing in Oz memorabilia.

And Saturday night, the final night, will be an Oz collectors exchange, where collectors, novices and interested fans can peruse the memorabilia pertaining to the film and book by L. Frank Baum, whose great-grandson Robert Baum and two granddaughters will attend the event, as well as author Cox, who will sign copies of his updated "The Munchkins of Oz," being republished by Cumberland House.

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